Pool: Shoot for the moon

They come from all over: young hopefuls desperate to play their way to a place in this week's World Pool Championships. Steve Bunce watches an unlikely crowd of hustlers, chancers and cue-ball wizards bid for glory over the tables in Cardiff

You'll find them in pool halls all around the world, from Bangkok to Bangor: a shadowy breed of men with sharp eyes and well-practiced cue-actions; men who manage to earn a slender living hustling on the tables.

Last week, 174 such individuals, from 33 countries, came together in Cardiff, abandoning their usual grimy, smoke-filled haunts in search of something a little more glamorous. This was the qualification tournament for the World Pool Championships.

In a series of knock-out competitions over the course of five days, these players were to shoot for the big time, vying to win one of 12 places in the championships proper, a televised event that is organised by Barry Hearn's Matchroom promotion company, in which 128 luminaries of the baize compete for a top prize of $65,000 (£45,000). The prize was won last year by Earl "The Pearl" Strickland.

But at teatime on a Monday afternoon, as the competition heats up on its third day, the Hollywood image of the fast-living, waistcoat-wearing, cigar-smoking pool shark seems a long way away. There are no Fast Eddies or Minnesota Fats here; instead, the rows of well-maintained tables are occupied by a curious assortment of international players, dressed in smart-casual outfits.

There's no smoke, no grime. The venue is, in fact, a neon-lit conference room in the Cardiff International Arena, which was last used by the Institute of Directors.

The game is nine-ball pool, direct and simple; and, judging by their distraught expressions, it seems to be taking a toll on the players. They started at nine in the morning and could still be playing at 1am. Assuming that they've still got the stomach for the fight, the losers will get up the next day and do it all over again.

"Anybody can play. Anybody with 80 quid can play. They might lose without making a ball, but they can keep coming back day after day and play with some great players," says Doug Gordon, a quarter-century veteran of pool halls and the organiser of the qualification tournament.

Last year, as well as big names such as the Filipinos Ramil Gallego and Rodolfo Luat winning through, total unknowns like John Wims (Ireland) and England's Richard Jones also battled their way through to centre stage.

When Gordon started putting the event together five years ago, it used to take place in a far more ad hoc fashion, in an assortment of pool halls in Swansea and Bristol. But the tournament's rapidly growing popularity has now forced him to relocate the event to its present, decidedly more corporate venue.

Gordon expects more than 200 players next year. And already the tournament is attracting well-organised national teams, players who are clearly taking it very, very seriously.

"Reaching the world championships would be a great honour," says the leader of one of the more far-flung national teams, Abdullah Salman of the United Arab Emirates. And the expectations back home are considerable too, as his team's trip has been funded by the Sultan of Sharjah's daughter, Shaikah Lubua Qasimi.

Hui Kai Hsia, who beat Roxton Chapman from Peterborough in Mon- day's deciding game to qualify for the main tournament, says he is expecting a lavish reception in his honour when he returns to his native Taipei. Had he ever seen Paul Newman's classic portrayal of a hard-gambling pool player in the 1961 film The Hustler? "No," he replies, with a puzzled expression.

As players win and lose, there seems little sign of any "action". There are no sporting gentlemen coming to some private financial arrangements over the outcome of a game.

And then I run into "John". John is from Chicago. Well, he went to Chicago when he was 19 to play pool. He is originally from England. "Just England," he tells me when I press him. Next to John is a man in a baseball cap who barely speaks, aside from muttering inaudibly and nodding from under his peak. He looks like a private eye. The pair move between the bar and the roped-off area where friends, family and players watch.

"This game is harder than the other game," says John.

The other game?

"Gambling. This is harder. In the other game it is possible to get the guy back, to wait and get him later that night or the next night. That is the way it works. I play and if I lose I get revenge, get the money. But here you have to win and if you lose, you have to wait a year. You have to win at nine in the morning and that is strange. There's a lot of pressure in this game," he says.

So how has John been faring?

He looks around and smiles: "Not good. Not good, but there are a few other things going on," he replies mysteriously. John goes on to say that he's got a hot tip for the world championships (which are underway this week in the same venue).

It certainly won't be Gulam Vays. Vays left Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in 1993 before the Taliban torched all the pool tables. He now studies medicine in Moscow, is married to a Russian and has a small son. In Cardiff he is struggling. His face is puffy, his eyes red.

"It is my first time and it is hard. Too hard for me. Next year I will be back," he tells me. He is also planning a trip to Kabul, where there are pool tables once again now that the Taliban have been ousted.

I turn back to look for John and The Cap, but they have left. I follow. It is nearly 11pm now. I see them entering the casino around the corner, but they don't hear my shout. I know the guy on the door, but he won't let me in. He knows John and The Cap, too. "Sure, they've been in for three or four nights. They're good spenders."

Back through the empty corridors of the Cardiff International Arena and into the sanitised, makeshift pool hall, the dull crack of rack balls being broken can still be heard. There is just one game left - the second final of the day - and the UAE's Hanni Howri is playing London's Anthony Ginn. It is now midnight. Only an Egyptian reporter, Sayed Osman, looks at all excited. The other onlookers huddle against the brightness of the room and speak in low tones at the end of each rack. Everybody looks wrecked - eyes sore from concentrating, hands stained with too much talc and chalk.

Ginn wins, his place in the championships is secured and his hotel-room bill will be paid - at least for as long as he can survive in amongst the big boys. The most successful of last year's qualifiers was Nickoy Lining, who went out 11-10 at the last 16 stage, beaten by his fellow countryman Francisco Bustamante. Lining took home $4,000 (£2,600) for his efforts.

Howri has won five times that day but still has to be back under the lifeless neon the next morning. He has a 10:45am start, a late one, but he looks weary. "The next game will not be easy," he admits.

Later in the week, I find out that Howri did win and qualify, becoming the first Arabic player to ever take part in the World Championship. "There will be an enormous function when we return," the UAE team leader Abdullah Salman tells me. Howri will play later this year in the Fujeirah classic in the UAE. Last year's winner received a gold bar.

Later that night, I continue my search for John and The Cap, determined to get the tip for the championship that they had mentioned earlier. I try two of the hotels that the players are staying in, but my quarry are not to be found in either of the bars. I head back to the casino and eventually catch up with them at 1:30am. Over Jack Daniels and Cokes, they disclose the tip.

"He started at 50-1 and that is a steal. Nobody knows him, nobody has heard of him, but he is real good," John says, handing me a slip of paper.

They had put their money down, played their hustle in Cardiff. No fuss, no big bets to alarm the bookies, just a few quid here and there on an obscure American to win the world title.

I ask them about The Hustler. Their eyes light up.

"I love that damn movie," says John. "Fast Eddie Felson. Man, that was great. The first meeting with Minnesota Fats... Man, what did it last? Like 36 hours or something crazy?"

That was pool, they agree. John has a 9am start to look forward to, but at 3am they are still talking. The next day, John makes the last 16, but he's still not good enough for the championships. The Cap never plays; he gambles. Just two hustlers in town for a game of pool.

The World Pool Championships continue at the Cardiff International Arena to 20 July

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